Science has become an integral part of many issues of public concern — medical, informational,
environmental, and legal. Scientific experts frequently square off in the evening news and during legal
trials. In short, because of the limits of lay knowledge, experts have quite a bit of power these days.
How can philosophy help me decide on the appropriate limits of expertise? What does philosophy
have to say about experts?
I was recently talking to someone who has just finished her dissertation on experts in the medical field
and she told me that she no longer believes in experts because there is a subjective starting point
which determines what they will eventually take to be true. Of course there is a subjective starting
point, but this doesn't mean that one can person cannot know more in a particular field than others.
However, more interestingly, she has discovered that many people in the medical field who are taken
to be experts are not in fact so. They have passed through the proper channels and have been
recognised by professionals within their own field as experts but their position as experts is not
actually based on experience or knowledge but on their ability to come to the fore in their professions
because of their personal qualities. So if we want to know who we should regard as experts it would
be wrong to suppose that the profession itself will identify the right person. We have to be in a
position to assess their work.
Your question prompted me to read Paul Feyerabend's article "Experts in a Free Society", initially
printed in The Critic(Nov-Dec 1970) and reprinted in Philosophy, The Basic Issuesedited by Klemke,
Kline and Hollinger. Feyerabend describes experts as people who have decided to achieve supreme
excellence at the expense of balanced development — he is unbelievably scathing! — you must read
the paper, but I can't resist quoting from it here:
It is quite depressing to see with what fervour thousands of young people throw themselves into
special subjects where they are trained and trained and trained by receiving now punishment, now a
pat on the head until they are hardly distinguishable from the computers whom they want to approach
in efficiency .... these inarticulate and slavish minds have convinced almost everyone that they have
knowledge and insight ... that they should be able to educate our children ... Should we allow a bunch
of narrow-minded and conceited slaves to tell free men how to run their society?" An example of
narrow-mindedness is the physician who deals only with the physical body.
Feyerabend also criticises the experts' desire to appear professional through the use of lingo which is
both absurd and can distort facts. Masters and Johnson, for instance, want to say that a male should
ask a female what she wants rather than guessing, but actually say "The male will be infinitely more
effective if he encourages vocalisation". The first part of the sentence is not really true and the latter
part is an absurd way of talking about something as simple as "asking". Apparently, the "awful
Newton" is responsible for this way of writing.
So this is how one philosopher views experts. Feyerabend also thinks that expertise is limited by
following methods such as simply looking at empirical evidence and says that Galileo, who is taken
as an example of a well-rounded rather than narrow-minded scientist, was more in favour of following
a hunch and acting on prejudice. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this because to agree on a
method doesn't mean it is correct, but may reflect the conformism of scientists. Feyerabend also
points out that Galileo worked prior to professionalism with its lingo and included personal history and
rhetoric in his reports, an approach which was individualist rather than conformist and methodological
as we expect the expert to be today.